In this alumni spotlight: “Five years on - where are they now?”, we have the pleasure of speaking with 2019 Young Women to Watch in International Affairs Finalist Natalie Kyriacou, Founder & Chair at My Green World, about her career in environmental activism and conservation.
Natalie Kyriacou OAM is a recognised environmental and social impact leader, renowned for her advocacy and expertise in sustainability at both a grassroots and corporate level.
Natalie was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia and the Forbes 30 Under 30 honour for her services to wildlife and environmental conservation and education in 2018. She was the United Nations Environment Programme’s ‘Young Champion of the Earth’ Finalist for her innovation in wildlife and environmental conservation, and in 2022, was recognised as one of The Australian’s ‘Top Innovators’ for environmental impact and ‘Top Green Voices’ on LinkedIn.
Highly regarded for her authentic leadership in the environmental and social impact spaces, her passion and expertise lie in exploring the intersection of nature, climate and social equity issues and how these issues are navigated across commercial, political, and community landscapes.
She is a climate and nature Director at Pollination Group, the Founder and Chair of wildlife and environmental organisation, My Green World, a Director at climate and nature firm Pollination, a Board Director at Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, a Board Committee member at CARE Australia, an Australian Delegate to the W20 (the official engagement group of the G20), and the former Australian Director of Sri Lanka- based NGO, Dogstar Foundation.
Natalie’s passion and expertise lie in exploring the intersection of environmental and social equity issues, enhancing biodiversity outcomes, and amplifying young and diverse voices and grassroots initiatives in climate and nature conversations.
Among many other things, you are the Founder and Chair at My Green World. What are your day-to-day responsibilities, and what has been your proudest achievement in this role so far?
My role has evolved significantly since founding My Green World and I am now fortunate to have a range of roles with various organisations and non-profits; all geared towards a similar goal of enhancing environmental and social outcomes. As United Nations chief António Guterres says, “our world needs climate action on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once.” This is largely reflective of how I approach my work.
My proudest achievement at My Green World was building and launching our app, ‘World of the Wild’ in 2015, which was a game to encourage young people in virtual wildlife and environmental conservation. I sold my car and put my life-savings into building that program, and I feel a great sense of pride that I wholeheartedly believed in the mission and was able to contribute to environmental outcomes in my own small way.
Looking back at your recognition as one of the Young Women to Watch in International Affairs in 2019, how has it influenced your professional journey and personal growth over the past five years?
My entire career and life’s purpose is focused on continuing to push for greater wildlife, environmental and social equity outcomes. I believe I have a moral obligation to do so. Recognition for my work is a privilege, but it is not why I do this. I would say that recognition gives me a greater awareness of my privilege and motivates me to use that privilege to pay it forward and continue fighting for environmental and social outcomes.
Environmentalism and conservation has historically been a male-dominated field. What strategies have you employed to navigate it and what advice would you offer to young women aspiring to pursue careers in this field?
Actually, it hasn’t. Women have been the bedrock of the environmental movement, they just haven’t been acknowledged for their contributions throughout history. It was actually a woman named Eunice Foote who discovered the warming potential of carbon dioxide in 1856. Her discovery was credited to a man for 123 years. It’s a familiar story for many women. Rachel Carson is the pioneer of modern day environmentalism through her book, Silent Spring. Wangari Maathai became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Christiana Figueres built the global climate change negotiating process, which led to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Greta Thunberg set off one of the largest movements in human history, mobilising millions of young people to raise their voices for climate action. Women are titans of the environmental movement; we just don’t talk about it enough.
In terms of advice I would offer to women; The first is to know your worth. Don’t let anybody diminish you or make you play small. The only thing that will do is limit your self confidence and hinder your ability to have impact and create change.
My favourite saying is, “If you see a woman that has everything going for her and you’re not ready to add value to her life, just admire her from afar. Please don’t interrupt her greatness”. It took a lot of work for me to recognise my worth, and that nobody got to determine that but me. I hope other women recognise their own worth in a shorter timeframe than it took me.
Every individual will have their own journey and their own unique way of expanding their impact. For me, I started with the idea that I might be able to contribute positively to the world in my own small way. There was nothing grandiose about it. Over time, the impact snowballed. I found it helpful to surround myself with mentors, as well as a network of diverse individuals that thought differently to me, that were shaped by different circumstances to me. I sought out connections with new people, perspectives and experiences; I asked for advice, I shared my passions, and I approached new conversations with curiosity. But above all, I always, always, always, remind myself of the reason I am doing this: to contribute to a more socially and environmentally equitable world.
What experiences or moments helped you identify your passion in international affairs and environmental activism, and how did you pursue it?
It is hard to pinpoint an exact moment. I have always been deeply engaged with - and endlessly curious about - the world around me.
Very early in my career I had the opportunity to spend a few months in the Bornean jungle, in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo to be exact. This was part of an orangutan rehabilitation project, whose mission was to rehabilitate orphaned and confiscated orangutans. My personal aim was to learn more about the challenges facing some of the world’s most iconic species, and to write an article about the impact of palm oil on orangutans (and many other lesser known species).
I was living in a small guest house that backed on to one of the few remaining tracts of protected rainforest in the region. Each day was rewarding and gruelling; the weather was stiflingly hot and humid - often reaching over 90% humidity that would have me drenched in sweat the moment I awoke. I wasn’t permitted to wear deodorant, makeup or any chemical products, which could be irritating to local wildlife I may be handling. Each day I bottle fed infant orangutans, sourced food and enrichment for local wildlife, taught juvenile orangutans to climb trees, and trekked through the jungle to monitor wild orangutan nest populations.
The morning I arrived at my accommodations in Borneo, I was taken on a tour of the rehabilitation centre’s facilities. I remember standing on the edge of the jungle, chatting to a local ranger when all of a sudden, I felt something grasp my hand. I looked down to find a young orangutan gazing up at me, gently holding my hand. It is, to date, the most bittersweet experience I’ve ever had in my life. Because while I selfishly cherished the experience of having an orangutan hold my hand, I also knew that this was not the behaviour of a healthy, thriving and wild orangutan. This orangutan was quite thin, and was uncharacteristically (and unnaturally) standing on his two hind legs, like a human. He had also lost most of his fur. I was told that he was a “rehabilitation failure”. His home in the jungle had been destroyed and his mother had been killed to make way for palm oil plantations, leaving him an orphan. Despite the best efforts of the centre to rehabilitate him back to the wild, this orangutan had become too accustomed to human interference and was unable to thrive or survive in the wild any longer.
This orangutan, to me, was symbolic of the crimes against nature that we have committed, and continue to commit today. This experience helped me to better understand the delicate and complex balance between wildlife, the environment and human survival, as well as the role of locally led solutions to solve global issues.
In Borneo, I met people that truly lived with nature, not against it. People that understood the delicate balance of natural environments; who could identify thousands of species of plant and animal from a single glance; who lived in tough, unforgiving environments but wore a smile on their face and acted with kindness every single day; people that humbly and quietly dedicated their lives to making the world a better place; people that prioritised presence, community, family, nature and purpose above all else.
This was a significant moment for me that reinforced the path I was on. The environment is a geopolitical issue, a social issue, an economic issue, a health issue - it intersects with everything. To care about the environment is to care about something much bigger than ourselves as individuals, it’s to care about the world around us.
Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations? What impact do you hope to make in the coming years?
It is simple really: my goal is to live a life that creates more good than harm. I aim to continue practicing that every day.
Nominations for the 2024 Young Women to Watch List are now open!
Nominate (or self-nominate!) an outstanding woman before midnight on January 31st 2024.